China has a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons. However, China considers Taiwan to be its territory, and according to China, this policy doesn’t apply to any situation involving Taiwan. This message was clearly conveyed by Sha Zukang, the former Chinese ambassador to the UN. In an interview with the BBC, Sha said that China would “do the business” and sacrifice its own people’s lives if any nation supported a declaration of independence by Taiwan. This is what makes the situation with Taiwan so dangerous.
A significant part of China’s strength lies in its conventional forces and weapons. However, China’s nuclear doctrine has thus far ensured that external interference in China’s businesses has not occurred. Taiwan, according to China, is its territory and its business. It’s about national pride and deterrence. In fact, China’s entire nuclear doctrine has been designed keeping deterrence in mind. And China is one of the few countries that has a credible second strike capability. This is what makes it extremely dangerous.
Usually, when countries talk about second-strike or retaliatory capabilities, they mean that when an enemy carries out a nuclear attack, they’d be able to respond because they have nuclear-capable warships, planes, submarines, and land-based facilities. However, all of these can also come under attack. China, on the other hand, has what it calls the “Underground Great Wall”: An underground network of facilities, silos, tunnels, and living quarters.
This network stretches for some 3000 miles and is deep underground, making it immune to existing weapon systems. This facility was built because China believes (rightly so) that it can absorb any kind of a first nuclear attack. So, this underground great wall houses a large part of China’s nuclear arsenal and gives China the ability to retaliate in less than 10 minutes. So far, China’s policy was clearly of no-first-use, which made this great wall significant.
However, China has been attempting to deviate away from this policy. For example, there is a lot of ambiguity in terms of what China considers a first attack. One of the most significant debates currently going on within the military intelligentsia of China is related to what really constitutes a first strike.
Some have proposed that any kind of cyber attack on nuclear facilities or any use of a conventional missile system should be considered as a nuclear attack. Some have even gone beyond this to define any act of war against China as a nuclear attack. Clearly, with no clarity on what China considers a first strike, its nuclear doctrine has begun to look a lot more dangerous.
Also, due to the underground great wall, any deviation from first use policy becomes a significant risk factor for the rest of the world. This is because, while transportation of nuclear weapons and increase in military activity can generally be tracked via satellite, the pace of activities within the underground great wall are hidden. It provides cover for any attack preparations.
Now that we understand China’s nuclear doctrine, we must understand the relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States. Firstly, Taiwan briefly became a Dutch colony in the 1600s but was liberated by a Chinese loyalist. Prior to the Dutch occupation and after it, Taiwan essentially was part of China in every way – culturally and linguistically.
But, it wasn’t until the communist revolution of 1949 that a significant difference between China and Taiwan arose. When Mao took over in mainland China and declared it to be People’s Republic of China (PRC), his political rivals took refuge in Taiwan and declared it to be Republic of China (ROC). It’s from this event that the two countries developed animosity. In fact, Taiwan isn’t even recognized as an independent country by much of the world.
The US specifically hasn’t had any official diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1979 when PRC was recognized as a nation. But, the US has had unofficial relations with Taiwan, offering it moral support. This has been done to ensure that Taiwan doesn’t get invaded by the PRC because that would cause instability in the region.
Even though the US has never maintained official relations with Taiwan, China has been extremely wary of even the slightest signs of US involvement in Taiwan. This is because strategically, Taiwan is an important military buffer for China on the South-Eastern front. China believes that in the case of a war, even a limited one, Taiwan could play a significant role as a launch pad for an invasion of the mainland.
As a result, on the issue of Taiwan, there has been a continued strain in Sino-US relations.
The future of the relations between the three countries became even more uncertain ever since Tsai Ing-Wen, the President of Taiwan, promised to declare independence from China. As a result, both China and US have been keeping a close eye on the situation in Taiwan and have been trying to dissuade tension by means of unofficial talks.
What the future holds for the relationship between the three countries is uncertain. Growing tensions in the South China Sea, and the posturing of China and US on various fronts has given impetus to some war hawks on both sides. Some even see Taiwan as China’s weak point, something that can be exploited. However, for now, peace prevails. Let us hope that continues to be the case.
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